Norman Lewis, who among other things was imprisoned by the former South African regime, tells Daniel Ben-Ami that apartheid was a form of racialised capitalism

It has become commonplace to equate Israel with the old apartheid regime in South Africa. But such comparisons obscure the distinctive characteristics both of Israel and of South Africa as it was. Apartheid South Africa embodied a form of racialised capitalism. Israel, in contrast, is driven by the fear of an existential threat to its survival. The latter relates in turn to the question of anti-Semitism.

To help better understand these questions I spoke to Norman Lewis about the distinctive character of apartheid South Africa. Lewis was imprisoned by the South African regime in the 1970s, including spending his 21st birthday in Pretoria central prison, and since then has thought deeply about South African development. In part two of this interview we will discuss the all too pervasive myth of how the economic and cultural boycott supposedly toppled apartheid.

Q) What made apartheid South Africa different from other discriminatory regimes?

That’s an important point to understand. Race was the historical form that the emergence and the development of capitalism took.

It had everything to do with being a settler colony to begin with. The racial attitude that the British colonial power brought into South Africa was the same as it introduced everywhere else. But what transformed South Africa was the discovery of gold and diamonds. The rush to control that and exploit these was a real driver, particularly and not just simply around the Boer War [1899-1902] between the British and the Afrikaner settlers.

It was also about inter-imperialist struggle that was going on in Africa particularly between Britain and Germany. Germany at that time had a colony in South West Africa [now Namibia].

What prompted the Brits to go to war against the Boers in 1899 was when the settlers who had escaped British rule and went into the interior, to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, declared an independent Boer republic. They were looking to form an alliance with Germany because such an alliance would give them a route to the sea through Windhoek, thus giving them a trade outlet independent of Britain. That was one of the main reasons Britain went to war against the Boer republics.

Q) So how did the system of discrimination begin?

It was the British who introduced, for example, the colour bar into industry. That designated certain jobs as skilled, only for whites. They were the ones who confined blacks to 13% of the land in South Africa. It was under the British that happened. Not under the Afrikaners. And the reason they did it was very simple. It was to ensure a cheap disenfranchised reserve army of labour for the emerging mining industry and the further industrialisation of South Africa.

Britain established the total segregation and the racial profile of how capitalism was developing in the South African context. And that’s why race and the economy and everything were inextricably bound together.

When apartheid was officially introduced [in an independent South African state dominated by Afrikaners] in 1949 it was a continuation of what had existed before. It wasn’t a radical break from the past. The racial thinking that informed it was, with some important nuances, broadly the same as under the British.

Q) Were there any differences between the system of discrimination introduced by the British and the system of apartheid when South African became an independent state?

This is a poorly understood question. The relationship between Afrikaner nationalism and British rule was a conflictual and symbiotic one. They shared the same racist mentality. But the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism could only take place in the context of a racialised system. Britain’s colonial control over South Africa, like in all its colonies, meant there was little scope for a local bourgeoisie to emerge. What complicated things further was that African nationalism emerged in the same conditions. Essentially there were two nationalisms competing for access to power and the wealth of the country.

What Afrikaner nationalism represented was the nascent aspiration of a local white middle class which aimed to become the ruling business class. And just like the very small aspirant black middle class, they wanted to be able to own the factories and control the wealth.

What happened after the second world war was that the Afrikaner nationalists gained access to power. Apartheid was their attempt to develop themselves as an independent bourgeoisie. They further systematically created the circumstances through which they could gain more access to resources, gain wealth and control the political process. This  meant further institutionalising racial oppression – the denial of democratic rights to the black majority. This is essentially what apartheid was.

Q) What was the significance of what was sometimes called “petty apartheid”. For example, stopping blacks and whites from mixing socially. Or only allowing blacks who carried the appropriate passes, showing for example that they had a job, to enter urban areas?

Petty apartheid was a fundamental element of apartheid rule. It was not ‘petty’ in the sense that it was of little importance. The cultural practice of racial segregation cemented the identification of class interests within white South Africa. The further entrenching of racial capitalism became an authoritarian nightmare for black South Africans.

If you were black you were denied your humanity, you were expendable, you were exploitable, you had no rights. The education you were offered was simply to a level where you could carry out the work of a semi-skilled worker or unskilled worker. Skilled work was reserved for whites. Everything in society from where you could live, eat, work, even sit on a park bench, was becomes demarcated along racial lines.

So, the point to really understand here is that it was not simply an ideological belief that the black man was inferior. Ideology played a crucial role but what made this so powerful and omnipotent was that the real material forces necessitated its reproduction. Capitalism in South African could only exist in this racialised way. To be anti-racialist in South Africa was, almost by definition, to be anti-capitalist. This simply reinforced the idea that everything was determined by racist ideology. This in turn determined the nature of the political struggle.

The market in South Africa was not just controlled by those who had access to resources. It was politically controlled. It wasn’t just about backward ideas held by Afrikaners (and many other whites) –almost all sections of white South Africa did treat blacks abominably.

To develop a political struggle in South Africa you had to address racism. The question was how you did this.

Striving for equality in South Africa meant not just destroying racial thinking. It also entailed, by definition, challenging the whole socioeconomic basis of society. Because that’s how society was. Black oppression was the basis of super-exploitation, perhaps the most severe globally at that time. That is why the government was so paranoid about the ANC [African National Congress] and its attachment to the South African Communist Party [SACP] and the political struggle unleashed by apartheid.

The way people explain the degree of violence and the repressive power that the regime had was that they were just die-hard racist people. There was definitely that element. Why wouldn’t you behave like that if you were fearful that democracy could result in everything being taken away from you? White skilled workers were living in homes with swimming pools and servants. The standard of living for the ordinary white working class was extraordinarily high.

There was a lot at stake. The minority ruling elite knew that they were essentially living on borrowed time, and that at any moment the whole thing could explode, especially when the question of black democratic rights raised its head. The demand for equality, even when not connected to the issues of wealth and power, represented an existential threat to the white minority elite and the existing capitalist system.

This is why the struggle for democracy in South Africa was seen as such a threat. The demand for the vote, for equality and freedom represented a threat to the continuation of capitalism itself. This is why the struggle for the vote, for example, was felt to be a threat not only to the apartheid regime but to all the powers that supported it including Britain and America. Britain and the US made a huge amount of money exploiting blacks in South Africa. What is presented as Afrikaner intransigence was in fact a unified determination by all who benefitted from the super-exploitation of black workers to ensure the gravy train would never be derailed. Cold War politics also played a role, but the key point is that the support for apartheid was not simply a local affair driven by die-hard Afrikaner backwoodsmen.

Q) That’s a very different perspective from, for example, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports that label Israel an apartheid state. For them “apartheid” seems to essentially denote a system of discrimination.

I think you need to be specific about South Africa. In the latter years of apartheid, the ruling elite and their international backers began to recognise that apartheid was inherently unstable, that violent oppression alone was becoming a source of instability. They recognised that this was dangerous. That this was creating a force against them.

In response they developed a strategy of dividing black South Africa along ethnic lines, though the  recognition of the ethnic homelands originally created by the British. They tried to consciously create and promote these different communities to suggest that there was no black majority, but competing black minorities, ethnic divisions of which whites were just another minority group.

But of course this was delusional. The experience of apartheid oppression cohered a common black consciousness that was not susceptible to this crude manipulation. Sadly, it definitely ensured there would be no unity between black and white working-class people, because for this you needed class politics, not nationalism, which was the inevitable historically determined form politics took.

Q) So what you are describing is a socioeconomic system based on racial exploitation?

Yes. It wasn’t just the narrow racial thinking that said that whites are better than blacks and therefore whites should be oppressing them. It was far more complex. It was a whole society based on racial discrimination. All thinking was racialised. How could it not be? The colour of your skin determined what kind of life you experienced and what your aspiration might be.

Photo: South Africa by United Nations Photo

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